September 2017

Monday, September 25, 2017

Part I of Building a Web Server Awesomely: Set up your Pi, router, & development machine

This is the first part in a series of how to turn a Raspberry Pi into a fully-functional Web server, serving multiple custom domains. Want more context? Read the introductory post.

Let us begin. Here's what you'll need:

  • A raspberry pi.
  • A router. Bet you already have one of these, since you're on this site.
  • A development machine.

I know it said that all in the title, but I have no sense of what people do or do not read.

Pi time!

You're going to want a Pi, an SD card, a heat sink, and probably a case because that's cool. You can get all of these things in a starter kit. Mine's in a clear case so I can watch it merrily blink away.

Get it all set up per the instructions, all the way through logging in and starting up the GUI, and then come back to me.

Hello! Good job booting up your Pi! A couple important things to note:

  • You should add your own account to the Pi that you'll use for most of your development. If not, you must change the default password of the default account (pi/raspberry). Now the most important part in either case: You must set your locale properly before you choose a password for your account. Either just trust me, or read this to understand better.
  • I bet you think it's all fun and games to have your Pi all wireless. No. Plug it into your router with a wired ethernet connection. This will save you an hour later when you're wondering why it's so slow to ssh into your Pi. Plus, we're not clowns. We want the response time for our server to be baller.

Let's get into that router config

There will come a moment in Part II when you've got your Web server set up and think you're a god because you can reach it from the computer it's running on – perhaps even from another computer on your LAN. You are not this thing, not unless you configure your router. Your computer is on a LAN, my friend, and the outside world can't access a random port on a random machine on your LAN. Your Pi doesn't even have its own external IP address. Internal, sure. And we'll get to know it quite well. But only your router has an external IP address. Therefore, logically, your router is going to have to be the gatekeeper when people are trying to get at your Web server.

So we're going to do two things:

  1. Give your Pi a static internal IP address.
  2. Forward traffic to port 80 on your router to your Pi.

Static internal IP

This is my service to you: I give you tips that, while not strictly necessary, will save you much heartache. Sometimes you'll need to reboot your Pi, and when you do, your router may not necessarily assign it the same internal IP address. And yet so much of your life has come to care about this IP address: Your SSH client, for example, and your router, when it comes to forwarding traffic.

So first, go to in your browser. This address is your router's IP. Your other machines will have similar addresses, differing by the integers after the last dot. Log in to your router. (If you don't know the default username and password, Google your router brand or check here. Most are admin/admin or admin/password.)

Next, probably somewhere in advanced settings, you'll see something about DHCP or LAN setup. Mine, for Netgear, was under Advanced > LAN setup > Address reservation. Choose a low-ish integer to assign your Pi; don't choose 1, because if you were reading carefully, that is reserved for your router; don't choose a number in use by another machine, because that will be confusing for you for 5 minutes. More in-depth reading here.

Forwarding port 80

This is so when a machine on the internet knocks on your router's door at the default HTTP port, 80, it knows to send that traffic to your Pi's port 80, where your Web server will be eagerly listening.

In my router, this configuration is hidden under Advanced > Advanced settings > Port forwarding, because it is double advanced. Add an HTTP service that forwards from external port 80 to port 80 at the static, internal IP address you just assigned your Pi in the step above.

Your development setup

You'll probably want another computer on which you can install an IDE and ssh into the Pi. It's not strictly necessary if you have a lightweight IDE for your Pi (read: emacs, vim) and a screen to connect it to, but personally I prefer to ssh.

The particulars are a matter of personal preference, but you'll want an IDE, an SSH client, and an SFTP client. I'm using:

Atom is neat because it's a highly configurable IDE with a lot of community support, so it's got tons of plugins; I installed some to support Javascript, node, Github, etc. But mostly prettification. Who can read CSS that's not indented properly?

My development flow is to edit local files with Atom and regularly upload them to the Pi using Bitvise. I use Bitvise's shell to do my SSHing, so starting up servers, editing my crontab, aggressively refreshing configurations – all the good stuff.

That, my friends, is the end of the "setting up basic stuff" post. Next up is actually setting up our first Web server on the Pi. If you're ready for more, proceed to Part II.

Friday, September 15, 2017

I built a personal Web server*, and I did it awesomely

*JK I built 5.

A month or so ago, I was sitting on the floor of my apartment, feeling a sense of ennui. I needed a new hobby. Lying on trigger point therapy balls while reading sci fi, while satisfying, wasn't enough anymore. I was itching to make something.

It just so happens that I'd had a fun idea for a Web application I'd like to build, about which I will say no more because it's not done and you can't have my idea. Around the same time, I got caught up by friends' wedding excitement and offered to build and host some wedding websites.

It doesn't sound like you'd need your own Web server for that, you're thinking. No, it doesn't. But I wanted one.

It's borderline irresponsible to host your own Web server, what with cloud this and cloud that, but I'm feeling irresponsible. And I'm feeling like I want to play with new things.

Thus was born this adventure. Come along with me. Build a Web server awesomely.

I'm going to lay out the ultimate state, just to get you real excited. If it doesn't make sense yet, don't panic; we'll go through each step below.

We're going to make it so that you can have a single Raspberry Pi hosting multiple Web servers, each serving traffic to a different domain name (or subdomain). We'll do this by having all of these domains point to our router's (dynamic, external) IP address, which is configured to forward requests to port 80 to the (static, internal) IP address of our Raspberry Pi. On the Pi, we're running a a reverse proxy server that forwards these requests, based on the domain name in the request, to individual Web servers on other ports, each one serving a single domain. Except I lied there. We'll actually have the domains point to a DDNS hostname, which itself points to our router's IP; we do this because our ISP doesn't guarantee us a static IP address and it could change at any moment.

To make it concrete: You go to Because my router has a dynamic IP address, I can't just have redirect to my router's IP (or I can, but when my router gets assigned a new IP out of nowhere, I'll be sad); instead, I have a CNAME record that aliases my domain to my DDNS hostname, which I've registered for with a DDNS service (e.g. or This DDNS service gets notified when my IP changes (by a small piece of software they provide to poll for changes), so it knows what my current IP is, and forwards your request for to that IP on port 80. My router sends that request to my Pi on port 80, where nginx is listening; nginx looks up in a configuration file I've set up and sees that it should forward that request to the port I've specified, say 8080. On 8080, I have a nodejs server running that serves up the content for Ta-da!

If you only want to do a subset of these things – like only set up a single Web server, no reverse proxying, no DDNS madness – I've modularized the topics and you can call it quits when it suits you.

By the end of this, here are all of the technologies we will have played with:
  • Development environment:
    • Atom: IDE (optional; use whatever IDE you want)
    • PuTTY: SSH client (optional; only if sshing from Windows to your pi)
    • Bitvise: SFTP client (optional; again only if sshing from Windows to your pi)
  • Web server:
    • Nginx: Reverse proxying
    • Nodejs: Web servers (optional; if you want to serve a static site, you can use nginx alone. Or use Apache, if you want to party like it's 1999. I don't care.)
      • Forever: Keep those Web servers running
      • Nodemon: Reload your server on change
    • ddclient: Update your DDNS service when your ip changes (optional, if your router can connect directly to your DDNS service)
  • Configuration you never cared to know about:
    • Port forwarding on your router
    • Domain DNS settings (for those who have a custom domain)

Ready to start? Follow the guides below on your path to awesomeness.

  1. Part I: Setting up your enviroment: The Pi, the router, and your development machine
  2. Part II: Host a single server (custom domain edition)
  3. Part III: Set up DDNS to deal with your dynamic IP – for free!
  4. Part IV: Why host one server when you could have n servers? [coming soon]